The Best of Czech Classical Music: Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta

Photo: Boris Klepal, Český rozhlas

Janáček’s Sinfonietta is a remarkable composition distinguished for its celebratory fanfares. It was composed in 1926 in an atmosphere of anticipation of the Seventh Sokol Slet. Janáček wanted it to be mainly an expression of gratitude celebrating the first years of independent Czechoslovakia, so he dedicated his work to the Czechoslovak armed forces. On a deeper level, the composition is also a celebration of Brno.

Leoš Janáček, photo: Public Domain

Perhaps the Sinfonietta would have become popular even without its lively and imposing fanfares. But they certainly made the piece famous and helped it become a great work played by some of the most acclaimed orchestras.

The Sinfonietta, or small symphony, is often conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, currently the most famous British conductor. Especially well known are his performances with the Berlin Philharmonic, which he previously led for sixteen years. Rattle is married to Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, and Czech audiences also know him from his performances in Prague.

Simon Rattle, photo: Monika Rittershaus, Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Other great conductors who conducted the Sinfonietta include the American Michael Tilson Thomas, the Italian Claudio Abbado, or Kurt Masur from Dresden, known for leading some of the most famous symphony orchestras in the world. The work was a favourite of Leonard Bernstein as well. Thanks to its fanfares, the Sinfonietta is another Czech piece of unusual instrumentation, along with Smetana's Vyšehrad. Take the two solo harps which open the work. Or the original and stunning instrumentation of the first movement, which is written for nine trumpets, two trombones, two tenor tubas, and kettledrums.

The fanfares which make up the whole first movement were long considered to be atypical and new-fangled for classical music. The number of brass instruments required to play the first movement is indeed unusual, making it difficult to perform for most orchestras. Excellent French horn, trumpet, trombone, and tuba players are needed, which means that orchestras usually need help from other ensembles. The fanfares from the first movement then return in full force in the final fifth movement, where they are again joined by the rest of the orchestra, leaving quite an imposing impression on the listener. And even after so many years, they still sound fresh.

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